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Jan. 6, 2021

Ask the expert: Understanding linguistic racism

Some forms of racism are more obvious than others, but all have lasting, detrimental effects on minority cultures.


Peter De Costa, an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics, Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages and the Department of Teacher Education, had a study published in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism about linguistic racism, how it affects generations, and why the public needs to recognize its prevalence and correct course.


What exactly is linguistic racism?


Linguistic racism occurs when acts of racism are perpetuated against individuals on the basis of their language use. Victims of such racism are generally speakers of languages like Spanish or Arabic, or varieties of a language, like African American Vernacular English. These languages and variations are undervalued and seen as inferior to dominant, mainstream languages, such as standard English used predominantly by white, affluent members of society.


These racist acts can be overt or covert in nature. On an overt level, speakers may be openly mocked by others. On a covert level, they may be told that they are unintelligible because they speak with an accent, for example.


Why hasn’t this been a part of the racism discourse we’ve been having so far?


It has been part of the racism discourse for a long time, but it has existed primarily on an implicit, covert level. For example, speakers of minoritized languages have been told to undergo accent reduction training so they can become intelligible and therefore be understood by others. These offers are masked under the guise of giving speakers “friendly advice” and framed with the supposedly good intention of helping them advance socially.


However, linguistic racism has reared its ugly head in more visible ways recently because of rising jingoistic sentiments that target speakers who do not use the dominant language. In the U.S., speakers of languages other than English are often perceived as being unpatriotic and unwilling to embrace American values.


A recent example is the false labeling of COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus” in public discourse by prominent politicians. This fueled xenophobic resentment toward people of Chinese ethnicity across the globe. In London, for example, a young Singaporean Chinese individual was brutally attacked because of his ethnic association with the virus.


What are some everyday examples of how linguistic racism is perpetrated?

Acts of linguistic racism could take the form of comments like, “Could you please repeat what you said? I don’t understand your thick accent.” Or, if someone openly says only English is to be spoken in the workplace — despite the fact coworkers might be multilingual.


Another example is when someone interrupts a conversation to correct the grammar or vocabulary of minoritized speakers.


Are there any effects linguistic racism has on people that we don’t see with other forms of racism?


On a less visible level, the affective dimensions of linguistic racism can stir negative emotions, such as shame and guilt. Minoritized speakers might become ashamed of speaking their home language, which over the course of several generations could result in language loss.


This has certainly been the case with Indigenous languages of American Indian communities, many of whom in the past were sent to boarding schools — often outside of their reservations — with the goal of erasing the home languages of American Indian youth. The sad result is that because of immense pressures from outside their respective communities, many of these speakers lost their languages and became monolingual English speakers. Such a loss is further solidified across generations because parents, for example, elect not to use their community languages with their children, and the downstream effects are distressing and often irreversible. One result of this is when grandparents can no longer communicate with their grandchildren because they do not share a lingua franca.


On a more positive note, minoritized speakers may, due to community efforts or through the support of formal academic institutions, be able to reverse language loss. These efforts often take the form of heritage language learning, and individuals who engage in this endeavor often make an active effort to reconnect with their heritage language. More often than not, however, many communities lack the resources to revive and revitalize languages.


How has the pandemic worsened the issue?


The pandemic has been hard on so many levels and in a time of crisis, people often want to identify a problem source in order to assign blame. The virus took on an ethnolinguistic quality when it was named as the “Wuhan virus,” and by association, Chinese (as well as other northeast Asian-looking) people were subsequently viewed as carriers and superspreaders of the virus. In other words, this segment of the population was blatantly dehumanized and subjected to unnecessary ostracization.


COVID-19 also has highlighted much vaccine skepticism among minoritized communities. Even with the development and dissemination of vaccines, many members of minoritized communities are not convinced of their efficacy. This skepticism is not unwarranted given that historically in the U.S., members of the Black community have been kept in the dark about medical experiments. For example, in a study called the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” that dates back to 1932, African American male participants in the study were misled and not given all the facts required to provide informed consent. They were also never given adequate treatment for their disease. Such an ethical breach has resulted in a skepticism that lingers today. I raise this example to illustrate the extent to which racism overlaps strongly with linguistic racism, and to highlight how difficult it is to decouple the two.


What are some ways that people can start to recognize whether or not they are committing acts of linguistic racism?


A good starting point would be to acknowledge the existence of a race-biased monolingual standard ideology that favors white, affluent mainstream speakers. We need to recognize that multilingualism and multidialectism are social realities, and that it is not uncommon for multilingual speakers to shuttle back and forth between different languages and language varieties when they communicate with other multilingual speakers. Such a linguistic practice should not be seen in critical, deficit terms; rather, such verbal shuttling is a linguistic and cultural asset, and not something to be remediated.


By understanding the need to correct acts of linguistic racism, people can become advocates of minoritized speakers and speak up for linguistic rights. If anyone commits acts of linguistic racism, they should be made aware; more importantly, they need to be educated about this bias and its detrimental effects. In addition, they need to explore how to create a culture of care that takes into account the socioemotional needs of minoritized speakers, with a long-term view to create an inclusive environment for these speakers, so the latter can survive and thrive linguistically.


In the long term, linguistic shame and guilt need to be replaced by linguistic pride. Embracing and harnessing different languages and language varieties can be a win-win situation achieved by building solidarity instead of sharpening distinctions to the detriment of minoritized groups.


By: Caroline Brooks

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